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Online Oasis

Several years ago, officials from the island nation of Mauritius — some 1,200 miles off the coast of southeastern Africa — began making the rounds at high-tech conferences. They rubbed elbows with corporate executives from France to India and wooed major investors such as Hewlett-Packard for advice as they launched their latest plan for economic ...

Several years ago, officials from the island nation of Mauritius — some 1,200 miles off the coast of southeastern Africa — began making the rounds at high-tech conferences. They rubbed elbows with corporate executives from France to India and wooed major investors such as Hewlett-Packard for advice as they launched their latest plan for economic growth: turning Mauritius into an oasis for information technology (IT) firms.

The idea of transforming a tiny island in the Indian Ocean into an IT hub may seem like a long shot, but the effort is born of necessity. Like other small island nations, Mauritius has carved a place for itself in financial services, textiles, agriculture, and, of course, tourism. Those sectors have flourished under preferential trading agreements with the European Union and other partners, but today they look less certain. "[I]f you strip this country of these preferential trading instruments, you… threaten its very survival," Mauritian Prime Minister Paul Bérenger warned in February.

To counter that threat, the country has built the Ebène Cybercity (www.bpmlmauritius.mu), a high-tech complex set to officially open in May 2004. The cybercity will include a business park, multimedia center, and — its crown jewel — a 12-story "cybertower." The tower, promoters say, will be an "intelligent building with ultramodern features." Among these will be broadband Internet and satellite-communication capabilities.

But can Mauritius replicate the successes of Indian high-tech hot spots such as Bangalore and Hyderabad, whose gleaming IT megaparks have drawn the likes of Microsoft and Dell? Although the answer remains unclear, the island has one feature that competitors in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal can’t replicate: geographic isolation. That simple fact may appeal to investors jittery about setting up shop in countries with conflict-prone neighbors. "It’s got no borders except the sea around it," says Hewlett-Packard Southern Africa manager Andre Hartley. "It’s attractive as a disaster recovery center for a lot of businesses."

So far, 15 companies are considering relocating to the cybertower, including homegrown ventures such as Mauritius Telecom. Maybe it’s not enough to spark a technology revolution. But it’s a start.

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